Monday, March 31, 2014

Books Read in March

Another month done and this one seemed like a busy one for reading.  It turned out that I didn't read all that much outside of the Great Books reading list. 
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams - This was a new one to me and I wish I'd read it long ago.  It's been on my shelf for ages but for some reason I'd never taken it down.  A huge shame.  The book is told from the point of view of rabbits and it's something of a quest book.  A very fine book.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig - This is an odd book but also very well worth reading.  I expected something of a combination of biker and hippie but it really wasn't either.  Most if it is a long search for the essence of quality.  The last 100 pages or so deal with elements of both Greek and German philosophy and tied in directly with elements of the Great Books.  Very thought provoking.
Both of these books were on this list here, which is supposed to be filled with books that you 'must read at least once in your life'.  I may pick and peck my way through the list but I won't commit to it.  The first two that I read were both excellent.  (I've also owned both for some time before reading them.  This is the curse of the book buyer!)  This was such a dense month of reading.  As soon as I'm done with Tacitus, I'm going to look for something a bit more popcorn.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Yeats - Poetry

I've heard of Yeats, but I don't know any of his poetry.  This poem is titled 'Lake Isle of Innisfree'.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

What a lovely poem.  It speaks to me for right now I feel that same pull for a quiet and more peaceful spot.  I would go tomorrow, if I could to a place where I could 'have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow'.  I can also hear the lake water lapping.  And I'm sure I hear it deep in my heart.
Ok Yeats, it's probably time that I got to know you better.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Elements (Book One) - Euclid

(True story: I tried to read through this and found it very hard going.  Then I found this playlist and was able to understand it all.)

Euclid lays out some definitions and postulates and then works and works and works with them.  He proves various relationships between angles and lines and eventually provides a proof for the Pythagorean theorem.   If you follow along, you'll understand each of the steps.

I'd always assumed that the Pythagorean theorem was basically found in nature and then worked out later.  I thought that someone found the 3/4/5 resonance and then worked backwards from there.  Now I don't know that.  This proof suggests that it could have gone the other way where the it was worked out in theory first and then proved in practice.  That's kind of mind-blowing to me.
As the proof started, I wanted to take out a ruler and measure each square and then do the math, but in the theoretical world that Euclid worked in, that isn't necessary.  Working from already proved processes and postulates, he shows what must be true of every right triangle.  What must be true even if you don't have a ruler handy.
It's hard to overstate the influence that Euclid had on the math world.  From what I understand (and I'm way out of my comfort zone here), it wasn't until the 19th century that non-Euclidean math was developed.  That means for more than 2000 years, math in the Western world was all based on rules and assumptions that Euclid laid down. 
That's simply amazing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Who Decides? - Aristotle

There is something about Aristotle that makes my mind wander back to the works of Robert Heinlein.  In this case the discussion of various ways of governing brought me to a couple of Heinlein quotes that I'll share here. 
The quotes are from a book called 'Time Enough for Love'.  In the book, an incredibly long lived man named Lazarus Long is kept from death by his ancestors who want to find out what wisdom he has acquired in his life.  He scoffs at the idea but relents and keeps a journal in a section simply titled 'The Notebooks of Lazarus Long'.  In that section, these two quotes are back to back:

"Democracy is based on the assumption that a million men are wiser than one man. How's that again? I missed something."
"Autocracy is based on the assumption that one man is wiser than a million men. Let's play that over again, too. Who decides?"
Of course in any million people, the amount of people what will have the expertise to decide any kind of technical question will be overwhelmed by the ignorant majority.  This sometimes leads to wistful, late night discussions of having a benevolent dictator or some such.  "We need someone who can cut through the politics and do the common sense things that need doing."  That kind of thing.
But of course, how would you pick such a person?  You'd need to know what their thoughts were on budgets and defense and the environment and health care and so on.  You'd need to know what they thought of tax policy and abortion and gay marriage and so on and so on.  In other words, you could only pick such a person after they had gone through the political process. 
And then you'd risk the movement to tyranny.
This is why we go with democracy.  We'd rather have the messiness and uncertainty.  We'd rather be able to correct course if we go badly off track.  (One could argue that every major election in the US since 2006 have been course corrections.)  We want the legitimacy that majority rule brings.  And if the ignorant majority sometimes swallows up the wise few, well, that's an ok price to pay.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Politics (Books 3-5) - Aristotle

The bulk of this reading is concerned with categorizing various types of government and then discussing the differences between them.  Aristotle has three main categories: democracies, kingdoms and aristocracy.  Democracy is the rule of the many, kingdoms are rule of the one and aristocracy is the rule of a select (often wealthy) few.  He talks about various ways that a city will decided who is or who isn't a citizen and remarks that different cities require a different type of government.
Aristotle also talks about how to make the city better.  He argues that the virtue of a city will be derived from the virtue of its citizens.  He speaks at length on what will make this virtue and whether the virtue that makes someone a good man is the same virtue that makes a good citizen.  I found this striking because here today, we do very little educating on how to be a good citizen of our country.  Our children do some work on being a good 'world citizen' but beyond that the duties of a modern citizen are very little more than 1) obey the laws and 2) make sure you recycle.  This is probably not enough.
Another large element that Aristotle talks about is the strengths and weaknesses of various forms of government.  He says that 'when it is in the hands of the few, it will be a government of the rich; when it is in the hands of the many, it will be a government of the poor'.  He also argues that a blend of various governments could work well. 
But the best proof of a happy mixture of a democracy and an oligarchy is this, when a person may properly call the same state a democracy and an oligarchy.
I think you could argue that the US is in that situation right now.  I wonder if Aristotle would be happy with it?

One problem with reading Aristotle on your own is that there is so much in his writing that it makes it hard to digest it all.  Repeatedly while I was reading this, I wished that I could cover each 'book' of Politics in a group discussion or class room.  You could spend a week (or a month!) on each one and probably still have more to talk about. 
I'm sure this is a reflection of how this material first came together.  And I'm absolutely certain that this exact approach was taken in various schools and academies in centuries past.  I don't know if it is still done anywhere but I'm sure the results would be fascinating. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kipling - Poetry

Up next is a poem from Rudyard Kipling.  I've read plenty from him.  Certain of the 'Just So Stories' are regular bedtime reading for my son.  (He's a particular fan of the Elephant's Child.  So am I.)  This poem is a new one for me, 'Gunga Din'.

YOU may talk o' gin an' beer
When you're quartered safe out 'ere,
An' you're sent to penny-fights an' Aldershot it;
But if it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An' you'll lick the bloomin' boots of 'im that's got it.

Now in Injia's sunny clime,
Where I used to spend my time
A-servin' of 'Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them black-faced crew 
The finest man I knew
Was our regimental bhisti, Gunga Din.

It was "Din! Din! Din!
You limping lump o' brick-dust,
Gunga Din! Hi! slippy hitherao! 
Water, get it! Panee lao!
You squidgy-nosed old idol, Gunga Din!"

The uniform 'e wore
Was nothin' much before,
An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind, 
For a twisty piece o' rag
An' a goatskin water-bag
Was all the field-equipment 'e could find.
When the sweatin' troop-train lay
In a sidin' through the day, 
Where the 'eat would make your bloomin' eyebrows crawl,
We shouted "Harry By!"
Till our throats were bricky-dry,
Then we wopped 'im 'cause 'e couldn't serve us all.

It was "Din! Din! Din! 
You 'eathen, where the mischief 'ave you been?
You put some juldee in it,
Or I'll marrow you this minute,
If you don't fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!"

'E would dot an' carry one 
Till the longest day was done,
An' 'e didn't seem to know the use o' fear.
If we charged or broke or cut,
You could bet your bloomin' nut,
'E'd be waitin' fifty paces right flank rear. 
With 'is mussick on 'is back,
'E would skip with our attack,
An' watch us till the bugles made "Retire."
An' for all 'is dirty 'ide,
'E was white, clear white, inside 
When 'e went to tend the wounded under fire!

It was "Din! Din! Din!"
With the bullets kickin' dust-spots on the green.
When the cartridges ran out,
You could 'ear the front-files shout: 
"Hi! ammunition-mules an' Gunga Din!"

I sha'n't forgit the night
When I dropped be'ind the fight
With a bullet where my belt-plate should 'a' been.
I was chokin' mad with thirst, 
An' the man that spied me first
Was our good old grinnin', gruntin' Gunga Din.

'E lifted up my 'ead,
An' 'e plugged me where I bled,
An' 'e guv me 'arf-a-pint o' water—green;
It was crawlin' an' it stunk,
But of all the drinks I've drunk,
I'm gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.

It was "Din! Din! Din!
'Ere's a beggar with a bullet through 'is spleen; 
'E's chawin' up the ground an' 'e's kickin' all around:
For Gawd's sake, git the water, Gunga Din!"

'E carried me away
To where a dooli lay,
An' a bullet come an' drilled the beggar clean. 
'E put me safe inside,
An' just before 'e died: "I 'ope you liked your drink," sez Gunga Din.

So I'll meet 'im later on In the place where 'e is gone— 
Where it's always double drill and no canteen;
'E'll be squattin' on the coals
Givin' drink to pore damned souls,
An' I'll get a swig in Hell from Gunga Din!

Din! Din! Din! 
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,
By the livin' Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Well, I can't imagine that this would get published today.  The original was published in 1892 and it's something of a product of its time.  I guess you could say that the last stanza could be eye opening about the possibility that people from other cultures can be better people.  I don't know how true that was in this case.
Ok, so the message has issues.  What about the language?  I have great admiration for the way that Kipling works with words and that includes this poem.  It's hard not to fall into the dialect of the speech.  Still, it's hard to fall for this poem. 
I have some respect for it, but it's far from a favorite of mine.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reading for April

Just one piece this month but it's on the long side.

Tacitus: The Annals link

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Interpretation - Aristotle

This is one of the shortest pieces in the whole list.  The entirety of these first ten chapters is only six pages.  But, typically of Aristotle, it packs quite a bit into those pages.
In chapter one, Aristotle states that spoken words are symbols of thought.  He also says that nouns and verbs cannot be true or false on their own.  In the next chapter, he goes on to define a noun as 'a sound . . . which has no reference to time, and of which no part is significant apart from the rest'.  By this, he means that what we think of as a compound word like 'pirate-boat', the word 'boat' has no meaning if it were split out.  (And no, I don't quite follow that either.)
Anyway, I'm not going to summarize each chapter here.  The ninth and tenth chapters are the most interesting as he starts to get into ways of characterizing arguments.  This leads to the following chart, which is my very favorite one so far in the entire reading list:

I showed this to my wife (who helped recreate the chart), and she was baffled.  Why in the world would you start an example with something like 'not-man'?  And why would you get to a place where you'd use 'Not-man is not not-just'?  Ridiculous!
I kind of want to get this printed on a t-shirt.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Ernest Thayer - Poetry

I'd never heard this poet's name before, but I know the poem well.  This is 'Casey at the Bat'.  The blurb before the poem describes it as the greatest sports poem ever written, and I'll admit that off the top of my head, I can't think of a finer one.  (But I have resources and might return to this question!)  The entire poem is fairly long.  I won't do the whole thing, just the beginning and the famous end.  The entire poem can be found here.

It looked extremely rocky for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood two to four' with but an inning left to play.
So, when Cooney died at second, and Burrows did the same,
A pallor wreathed the features of the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go, leaving there the rest,
With the hope which springs eternal within the human breast.
For the thought: "If only Casey could get a whack at that,"
They'd put even money now, with Casey at the bat.

--- [Casey lets two balls go without a swing and the count goes to 0-2.]

The sneer is gone from Casey's lips, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel vengeance his bat upon the plate'
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville: Mighty Casey has struck out.

There is a power to this poem.  There is simplicity and heroism.  Mock heroism, sure, but as a sports fan, it rings true enough.  There is true tension too, the same tension that would happen in a tightly contested ninth inning.  It had been too long since I'd read the full thing.  This is a great poem.
Of interest to me (and maybe only me) is that this poem was written in 1885.  This is part of the 'dead ball' era of baseball when home runs were rare and more skill was put into precision batting.  The best batters would try to hit the ball away from the fielders, instead of driving it and hoping for a home run.  This doesn't seem to be Casey's strategy at all.  He swung hard enough to shatter the air.  Clearly he was hoping to put the ball over the fence.
It would be another 30 years before Babe Ruth really showed how powerful the 'swing for the fences' strategy could be.  I know that I've always thought of Casey as a Babe Ruth type figure.  I didn't know how far ahead of him this poem was.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Statesman - Plato

This dialogue starts strangely.  Socrates meets up with a stranger.  Accompanying him is a man named Theaetetus and a young man who is also named Socrates.  Socrates, the usual star of our dialogues, decides to let his younger namesake talk with the Stranger so that he can be taught about statesmen. 
The conversation is wide ranging and covers quite a bit.  The Stranger tells a story of a people that existed before mankind.  This story suggests cycles of time where things start out good and then evil creeps in.  I'm not sure how this ties in with general Greek mythology. 
There are many interesting questions raised, the most interesting was about the legitimacy of general laws. 

Stranger: He [the statesman] will lay down laws in a general form for the majority, roughly meeting the cases of individuals; and some of them he will deliver in writing, and others will be unwritten; and these last will be traditional customs of the country.
Young Socrates: He will be right.
Stranger: Yes, quite right; for how can he sit at every man's side all through his life, prescribing for him the exact particulars of his duty? Who, Socrates, would be equal to such a task? No one who really had the royal science, if he had been able to do this, would have imposed upon himself the restriction of a written law.

We only look to our laws in the general sense.  The idea of creating a law for an individual seems very off base.  The closest that we come to it is when laws are tailored for a narrow type of industry, for instance realtors.  But even then, the laws are based on broad concepts of justice like fraud and fair dealing. 
Again, as has been the case with other writings from Plato, I came away challenged but unsatisfied.  The dialogue veers from subject to subject and I'm never quite happy with the divisions and signposts that are put up.  My inner Aristotle wanted to yell 'Stop!' so that I could clean up the categories and actually explore them with completeness. 
Plato (and Socrates and in this case the Stranger) are obviously brilliant people.  I just continually get the impression that they're talking solely to win arguments.  I don't get the impression that they're actually illuminating a subject in the way that I do with writings from Locke or Mill. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Biography of Euclid

(Sorry, I thought that I had posted this last week.  I'm sure I wrote it.  Goblins must have eaten it.)

We know almost nothing about Euclid.  We don't know when he was born or when he died.  We don't know where he lived.  In fact, almost his entire biography is inferred from things that other people wrote about him.  There is a theory that the works of Euclid were actually the work of a team of mathematicians and that one single name was put on the entire work. 
While working through the Elements, I was struck by the enormous conceptual leap that they represent.  The entire idea of creating an abstract plane to prove things on isn't an obvious one.  And yet, it opened up so many avenues.  It allows ideas to be spread on a few sheets of parchment.  A group of people could learn the new ideas without actually going out in a field with ropes and stakes. 
I don't know enough about other cultures and their mathematics to compare.  Did Chinese mathematicians use similar methods?  How about the various Meso-American cultures?  The Persians?  The Arabs?  I honestly don't know. 
In any case, it's tremendous.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Constantine P Cavafy - Poetry

The next poem up, is another one that I'm not familiar with.  Nor the poet, a Greek man named Constantine P. Cavafy.  I'm assuming that the poem is translated from Greek, though the notes don't say.  The name of the poem is 'Waiting for the Barbarians'.

What are we waiting for: packed in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why have the senators give up legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What's the point of senators and their laws now?
When the barbarians get here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor set out so early
to sit on his throne at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
He's even got a citation to give him,
loaded with titles and imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors shown up today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with all those emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
so beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle barbarians.

And why don't our distinguished orators push forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious everyone looks.)
Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because it's night and the barbarians haven't come.
And some people just in from the border say
there are barbarians no longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without them?
The barbarians were a kind of solution.

I'm not sure what to make of this poem.  Let me think it through and then I'll see if I can look up some info and get some background.  The barbarian theme is obviously important.  'Barbarian' loosely means 'not Greek' so the poet is talking about an invasion of the non Greeks.  It doesn't seem to mean a military invasion.  Cultural perhaps?  If so, then the emphasis on how the various kings, senators and orators snaps things into place.  All of these important people are helpless (and useless) in the face of an invading culture.
But then the invasion doesn't happen and all of the problems that the Greeks were facing are still their own.
Ok, let me look it up and see if I've got it right.  Well, Wikipedia is no help.  And general Google searches are swamped by the Coetzee novel of the same name.  I do find this New Yorker article which compares last summer's government shutdown to the poem.  The article suggests that the details are purposefully vague and points out that the poem doesn't even name the capitol city.  So maybe I leaned too heavily with the idea of Greeks and non Greeks.
It's an interesting poem, but it doesn't work for me as well as others on the list.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Some Statistics

For March there are four different pieces to be read.  The most we've had in a previous month was three.  I was curious if there are any other months that ended up with four.  There are actually two more like this.  February of Year Seven (2018) and June of Year Eight (2019).
I don't know if I've explained before how I split up the list, but I'll do so now.  You may know that each year has 18 pieces in it.  I decided to go with a monthly pattern so that meant there would be some months with more than one piece.  The list is taken from the back of The Great Conversation.  Each entry includes the volume number and the pages that the piece can be found on.  I simply figured out page counts and tried to divide each month as equally as I could.  I also paid some attention to thematic content.  For instance, I paired Plato and Aristotle and tried to keep political science type things together.  It didn't always work, as this month shows.  (I don't know if Plato, Aristotle and Euclid would be bothered by being grouped together, but I won't worry about it.)
For most years, this worked pretty well.  There are some light months and some heavy ones, but it usually works out to about 100 pages per month.  Please note, that there is an assumption here that the type size is the same in all of the Great Books volumes and I don't think that's true.  Anyway, you work with the tools that you have.  For instance, for Year Three, the page count breaks down like this:

January - 111
February - 95
March - 111
April - 184  (Tacitus - The Annals)
May - 34  (Thomas Aquinas)
June - 155  (Chaucer - Troilus & Cressida)
July - 36  (Shakespeare - Macbeth)
August - 240  (Milton - Paradise Lost)
September - 91  (Locke, Kant)
October - 95  (Mill, Lavoisier)
November - 170  (Dostoevsky - Bros Karamazov, Part I-II)
December - 20  (Freud)

For this year, the numbers bounce around quite a bit.  The longer pieces are mostly literature or history which should make reading them easier.  The Freud piece this December, is the shortest planned reading month in the whole decade.  That's just how it works out.  No other year is this lumpy.
I also have full page counts for each year.

Year One - 862
Year Two - 1059
Year Three - 1342
Year Four - 1535
Year Five - 1560
Year Six - 1657
Year Seven - 976
Year Eight - 1148
Year Nine - 1263
Year Ten - 1666

Total 13068

For the most part what I said about larger page counts belonging to easier reading holds true throughout the whole list.  The whole idea behind this ten year reading plan is that an average person could spend just 15 minutes per day reading the listed material and they'd cover the whole shebang.  It doesn't say if this was tested in any way and 'average' may have meant something different when this list was published.  Still, the first couple of years weren't too bad, right?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Rabindranath Tagore - Poetry

This is another poet that I haven't heard of before this.  This is a translation from Bengali.  I'm told that this poet was renowned as a songwriter.  The poem is 'The Gardner'.  (Note: I'm typing this out as it is presented in the book so I don't know if the line breaks are set this way in the poem or if they simply come out this way in the printing.)

Your questioning eyes are sad. They seek to know my
meaning as the moon would fathom the sea.
I have bared my life before your eyes from end to end,
with nothing hidden or held back. That is why you know
me not.
If it were only a gem, I could break it into a hundred
pieces and string them into a chain to put on your neck.
If it were only a flower; round and small and sweet, I could
pluck it from its stem to set it in your hair.
But it is a heart, my beloved. Where are its shores and its
You know not the limits of this kingdom, still you are its
If it were only a moment of pleasure it would flower in an
easy smile, and you could see it and read it in a moment.
If it were merely a pain it would melt in limpid tears,
reflecting its inmost secret without a word.
But it is love, my beloved.
Its pleasure and pain are boundless, and endless its wants
and wealth.
It is as near to you as your life, but you can never wholly
know it.

Wow, that's quite a poem.  Another one that should be memorized by anyone looking to romance a young woman.  Some of this is quite beautiful.  "If it were only a gem, I could break it into a hundred pieces and string them into a chain to put on your neck. If it were only a flower, round and small and sweet, I could pluck it from its stem to set it in your hair. But it is a heart, my beloved. Where are its shores and its bottom?"  That's gorgeous writing.
The poetry element of this project was kind of a lark, but I've found it to be quite rewarding.  I've never heard of this poem and it's quite possible that outside of this book ('The 100 Best Poems of All Time", edited by Leslie Pockell), I never would have.  My life would have been poorer for that.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Readings for March

It's a busy month.

Plato: Statesmen link
Aristotle: On Interpretation (Chapters 1-10) link
Aristotle: Politics (book III-V) link
Euclid: Elements (book I) link

I'm through the first three and they're worth your while. 

Update: I just started in on Euclid and found this series of videos to be wonderfully helpful.